Taking a page from the Liberty athletics blog LibertyFlamesNation.com, we decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to try to get a more unfiltered look at the way the College has been dealing with the turnover in the CAA. What we got back was a dense — though not, by any means, all-encompassing — bunch of emails either to or from Athletics Director Terry Driscoll or President Taylor Reveley in regard to conference affiliation. The biggest takeaway: that, as was speculated last year, the College seriously flirted with its buddies in the North, the Patriot League. The emails provide no conclusion to the talks, but the last message pertaining to the Patriot League provided to us is from January, 2013.
Otherwise, the emails show a conference reacting to recruiting success (UAlbany, College of Charleston) and failure (so much for Davidson), its members’ varying proposals for moving forward, and a rightfully concerned league commissioner in Tom Yeager. Maybe best of all, we get to hear what Reveley — rarely one to have his words misconstrued — actually thinks of the CAA.
This post will cover the Patriot League issue. We’ll look at the CAA’s expansion efforts in a later post.
On June 18, 2012, Yeager sent a brief email to Driscoll in search of some reassurance. The subject line read “W&M & Patriot League.”
“The blogosphere has the Patriot League recruiting W&M to be the 10th member,” it read. “Supposedly a W&M Board meeting this week to consider. Any help?”
For Yeager, this would have been the continuation of a nightmarish Spring. Just over a month before, it was announced that the conferences top two basketball programs, VCU and Old Dominion
(a CAA founding member) were headed for greener pastures. A month before that, Georgia State had started the exodus by announcing it would be joining the Sun Belt.
We don’t know what, if anything, Driscoll wrote back to Yeager, but as far as we can tell, whatever blogs Yeager was reading weren’t off. The emails indicate that while Reveley and Dricoll were heavily involved in the CAA’s decisions about moving forward, they were also seriously weighing a move to the Patriot League behind the scenes.
On May 10, 2012, just before the rumors about VCU and Old Dominion would be confirmed, Driscoll emailed Reveley with good news.
“The Patriot League is holding its conference meeting this week. Last night John Hardt, the AD at Bucknell [of the Patriot League], called me to officially us know that, If our situation with the CAA were to change, W&M is at the top of the Patriot League’s list of potential new members,” Driscoll wrote. “I thanked him and told him that we are assessing where we are and ultimately the decision for us will be where we can continue our academic and athletic mission.”
Within 15 minutes, Reveley replied.
“Good,” he wrote, “… Nice to be wanted.”
The College had been exploring a move to the Patriot League since February, 2012 at least, when the earliest email we received was dated. And in a February 23 email there was mention of talks with the conference three years prior.
The messages we got pick up with Reveley, Driscoll, former Admissions Director Gary Ripple and Provost Michael Halleran discussing a change in the Patriot League’s football financial aid policy. It had just been announced that the conference had “endorsed a policy that will allow athletic merit aid for the sport of football,” according to an email from Vicky Stone, an administrator at Colgate University.
Previously, the Patriot League had only offered need-based aid to football players. The change would make it more similar to William and Mary and the rest of the FCS, potentially easier for the College to adapt to.
Driscoll emailed the information on the change on February 14, 2012, saying that “to be competitive in FCS football ‘need based’ only financial aid model is not sufficient. This will increase the competition for academically strong prospects for us.”
Reveley responded with the perspective of an administrator trying to tackle his own long-term budget crisis.
“All true … Still, somewhat jarring in an era of growing financial constraints to see people spending more athletic scholarships.
Halleran replied to Driscoll asking what the change would do to W&M’s stance on jumping to the Patriot League and how it would affect recruiting.
Read all of Driscoll’s emails on the issue below. In them he says it would expand the talent pool for Patriot League schools and make its teams more like The College in terms of athletics.
“It will make the Patriot League much more attractive to middle and upper income families who value education, an important demographic for us,” Driscoll writes. “… This should improve their competitiveness with access to a talent pool that previously would not consider the Patriot League with need based aid. … It could make them more like us athletically.”
Halleran wrote back with more questions, pointedly asking whether the change makes it “a better fit,” all things considered.
“The underlying issue here is the financial model,” Driscoll answers. “It would cost as much if not more to compete in the Patriot League. In addition to some increased costs, there would be a real loss in revenue without the CAA rivalries because there is no guarantee that the CAA schools would continue to play us in all sports. I am not an alarmist but a change of this magnitude could be very divisive among our supporters. … While academically they ‘look’ more like us and athletic aid brings them closer to us athletically, we are very different in culture and structure. However, if our goal is to have a competitive athletic program that seeks a balanced pursuit of academic and athletic excellence then the Patriot League could be an option.”
That was February 23rd. Ironically, for all the talk of the change bringing Patriot League football up to par with William & Mary, Lafayette would come to Williamsburg and hand the Tribe a 17-14 loss later that year, before the rule change went into effect.
The biggest challenge a jump to the Patriot League would pose is the expense of travel. The academic makeup of its schools is much more similar to William and Mary than that of the CAA’s, but most of the Patriot League is located in the Northeast.
And Driscoll’s fear of losing rivalries would soon be realized anyway when its biggest rival, Old Dominion, and another in-state adversary, VCU, abandoned the Colonial less than three months later. In its first year as a member of the Atlantic-10, the Rams didn’t play the Tribe in men’s or women’s basketball, and ODU isn’t on W&M’s football slate for the 2013 season, though it’s possible the schools could meet on the hardwood.
After those departures, Driscoll made a public statement reaffirming W&M’s loyalty to the CAA, despite the Patriot League discussions going on behind the scenes.
“As a founding member, the College of William and Mary’s Athletic Department remains committed to the Colonial Athletic Association,” he said on May 18. “Throughout its nearly three decades of existence, the league has managed change in membership and has consistently emerged stronger for it. With due diligence, I am confident it will do so again.”
Two weeks later, Reveley took a slightly different tone about the conference in an email exchange with Jim Ukrop, the former chairman of Ukrop’s Super Markets.
Ukrop, a graduate of The College who served on its Board of Trustees from 1985 to 1993, was concerned about the future of the Colonial.
“Yesterday I had the occasion to talk with Jim Kaplan [Editor's note: think Kaplan Arena] and John Gerdelman [Ed note: at that time on the Board of Visitors],” Ukrop wrote. “I think we all agree that we need to do what’s best for W&M and not what’s best for the CAA. … this is obviously the time for a strategic decision…”
Reveley didn’t mince words.
“Being in the CAA has been good for our athletic reputation, though it has done zip for our academic reputation and may pose long term recruiting challenges (far tougher to get in W&M and to succeed academically at W&M than is the case for other CAA schools),” he said. “The Patriot League wants us and it would be a much better academic fit, but my impression is that it doesn’t have the same caliber varsity athletics as the CAA, especially when it comes to football [Ed note: Lafayette would go finish 2-3 in Patriot League play]. Still likely, it seems to me, that our best bet for now is to glue the CAA back together if we can, particularly if Davidson were to sign on as a basketball member of the conference. But I am certainly open to any and all ideas.”
Of course, Davidson didn’t sign on in any fashion, turning down an offer from the Colonial in October, only to accept one to the Atlantic-10 in May of this year.
And along the way, Driscoll’s public attitude has changed somewhat. In December, he spoke about the changes in the CAA with Dave Fairbank of the Daily Press, sounding less committed to the conference it helped found back in 1979.
“As I look at that, I still have to go back and say, through these next round of machinations, if it becomes apparent that we can’t provide the experience we’re trying to provide, then we would have to think seriously about doing other things. It’s not like we have our head in the sand and we’re not looking at what’s going on,” he said. Later in the article, he highlights the biggest difference — academics — between W&M and the rest of the CAA. “Even from the start, we really don’t look like most of the other schools in the conference – from the original conference – other than being one of the state public universities. We don’t really look like them and have never really done business exactly like them because we have a little different academic standards.”
Nowhere in the piece is the Patriot League brought up.
The CAA scored a victory in December when it convinced the College of Charleston to leave the Southern Conference and join its ranks,
We don’t know whether or not a move is still being considered, but there has been some movement this year.
On January 2, Driscoll sent out an email with an outline of information the department would need to “properly evaluate the PL opportunity,” as he put it. Below is that outline.
In March, it was announced that George Mason, who helped put CAA basketball on the map when it reached the Final Four in 2006, was joining VCU in the Atlantic-10, leaving W&M and James Madison as the two last Virginia schools left in the CAA. Then in May of this year Elon announced it would follow the College of Charleston to the Colonial.
Correction: Old Dominion was not a founding member of the CAA. The Monarchs joined in 1991.